Lima Charlie: Why Does The UK Send Its Forces Into The Arctic?
And what exactly are we preparing for?
As the winter draws to a close, the British Armed Forces are beginning to wrap up another year’s season of successful Arctic warfare training in Norway. This year has seen a major commitment of UK forces to the region, including Apache gunship helicopters operating in the Arctic conditions for the first time. Why does the UK choose to send its forces into the Arctic and what missions are they rehearsing for exactly?
During the Cold War, the UK was committed, along with other NATO nations, to the defence of Norway to help prevent Soviet forces moving down the country, occupying it and gaining access to critical military facilities. The first Exercise Clockwork between the UK and Norway occurred in 1969 and in 1971 the first major UK unit (45 Commando) to deploy to the Arctic, building a significant cadre of experience of working in these conditions.
The role of the Royal Marines was to ship en masse from the UK to Norway, reinforcing allies and helping beat back any hostile attack, and prevent Soviet forces from gaining access to the North Sea. To that end, 3 Commando Brigade was designed to move to reinforce the NATO forces in Norway, providing additional troops, vehicles and capabilities to rapidly respond to any invasion.
Ironically the decision to make the Royal Marines operate to reinforce Norway almost led to the early demise of the two Royal Navy landing ships HMS Fearless and Intrepid in 1981, as part of the Defence Review. The Ministry Of Defence (MOD) felt it would be possible to use North Sea ferries to ship the troops to Norway and nearly scrapped both ships to save money. It was the Falklands War which saved them, where they landed 3 Commando Brigade ashore to recapture the islands.
The Arctic region is a challenging environment to operate in at the best of times, and in winter it is a deeply inhospitable and alien place. The freezing temperatures, heavy snow, ice and generally challenging weather make it somewhere that you cannot easily operate without extensive training.
To that end for decades now the UK has conducted annual cold weather deployments into northern Norway to train for operations in Arctic conditions. These deployments are designed to build individual capability to survive in the Arctic, then operate effectively as a warfighter in cold weather conditions.
Following the end of the Cold War these exercises were scaled back, and during Afghanistan they were paused while British troops were conducting operations. At a time when the UK was reducing defence spending and the Soviet threat had vanished, difficult questions were asked about why the continued need was there to train in the Arctic region and whether it was too expensive to continue.
Today though, this training has become one of the most significant overseas exercises for the British Armed Forces, and co-operation with Norway on this, and other defence issues has significantly increased. What changed to move from a position of practically cancelling training to instead embracing it?
The main change has been the resurgence of Russia as a clear and present threat to international stability. Norway shares a land border with Russia, and the high north and Arctic sea are also where the Russian Northern Fleet is based in Murmansk (including the sole Russian aircraft carrier ‘Admiral Kuznetzov’). Any Russian deployment from the north must go past Norwegian waters and airspace – which during the Cold War meant that gaining control of this territory would have been critical for both sides to try and derail the others operations.
In 2015, the Norwegians announced they would restructure their armed forces to better respond to the threat from Russia. This was at the same time as Russia had acted aggressively in the Crimea and elsewhere, annexing parts of Ukraine and supporting low-level hostilities there. The Norwegians were concerned that the increasingly assertive and aggressive Russian military activity included the reopening of long-closed military bases close to the Norwegian border and a significant increase in the number of flights very close to Norwegian airspace by Russian aircraft, including the TU95 Bear, and their nuclear-capable bombers such as the Blackjack and Backfire. This was supported by increasingly aggressive activity including staging mock attacks on Norwegian facilities with Russian aircraft.
Suddenly operations in the Arctic, which had been neglected by much of NATO for years became crucially important again. Norway, a key NATO state felt sufficiently unsettled by the threat from Russia to request an increase in the number of US troops based there - with more than 700 US Marines now based on an enduring ‘rotational’ basis in Norway. This, in turn, has led to the UK taking a significantly increased interest in both operating in the Arctic, and also more closely supporting NATO work there.
So, given all this, why has the UK sent Apache gunships to Norway?
The Apache is a key part of the British Army’s attack helicopter force, having entered operational service in 2005. 67 airframes were originally purchased, currently equipping two Regiments of the Army Air Corps, it has served with notable success in Afghanistan and Libya, providing both close air support to troops in contact on the ground and also disrupting hostile forces by destroying vehicles and even, in Libya, boats. In 2016 a contract for a further new build 50 AH64E’s was signed to replace the existing force from the mid-2020s onwards.
Equipped with hellfire missiles, a 30mm cannon and CRV-7 rockets, and supported by the capable ‘Longbow’ Radar providing an outstanding ability to identify targets, the Apache provides commanders with an extremely potent strike capability to disrupt enemy forces.
The value the Apache brings to UK operations is its flexibility in being able to operate from land and sea, with the UK variant able to operate from suitable platforms such as HMS Ocean (which it successfully did in Libya), and in time the Queen Elizabeth class carriers.
In Norway the Apache provides the UK with a hugely credible deterrent capability, able to work with other forces to tackle enemy forces that may pose a threat. The Russian Army has invested heavily in new armoured capability in recent years such as the T14 Armata tank, which has yet to enter widespread service.
In the remote northern parts of Norway though, the difficult mountainous terrain with limited lines of communication does not naturally lend itself to conducting armoured warfare. There are relatively few main roads down which tanks can pass, and there are many (reportedly more than 1000) mountain road tunnels that can quickly be mined or destroyed to shut down hostile movement.
Any attack on Norway is likely to involve light, fast-moving and probably airmobile units that can move at speed to occupy critical facilities like airbases and ports to help support reinforcements enter the country and consolidate their position. In particular, the Russian military has traditionally excelled at winter operations, making the risk from invasion perhaps higher in this season than any other.
The Apache provides an excellent counter to this threat, with highly capable weapon systems able to defeat most likely threats. Conducting trials in the Arctic is the first step for the UK to be certain that if called upon to meet its commitments in the region, it has the right package of capability to meet the challenges.
In particular, the Apache force will benefit not only from being able to operate in cold weather but also through its marinization programme, being able to be supported from the deck of Royal Navy warships like the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The work to ensure the Apache can operate at sea has already proven its worth during Op Ellamy (Libya 2011) where, operating from HMS Ocean, British Army Apaches were able to regularly attack and destroy enemy forces. This marked one of the first times that the Apache has been used in this way and provided a valuable capability to commanders.
In future operations, particularly in the Arctic, the fact that the Apache is able to operate at sea will help it form part of a much larger maritime air group onboard Royal Navy aircraft carriers. Already plans are afoot to create tailored air groups that will contain F35 Strike Fighters, Merlin ASW helicopters, Chinook transport helicopters and Apache gunships. The flexibility of the Queen Elizabeth class and the sheer size of the hangar means these ships will be able to theoretically embark practically every helicopter type in UK military service.
Under plans laid out in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the MOD is making modifications to both carriers to embark Royal Marines to carry out the ‘Landing Platform Helicopter’ (LPH) role previously filled by HMS Ocean. Therefore, future operations in the high north involving the Royal Marines will also almost certainly see Apache gunships embarked at sea, or operating from land, to continue to provide flexible close air support.
The Apache is not the only helicopter being tested in the Arctic this year. The Royal Navy, which has a ‘Commando Helicopter Force’ designed to provide aircraft to work with the Royal Marines sent 847 Squadron with its Lynx Wildcat aircraft to work with the Army Air Corps.
The Lynx Wildcat is a highly capable battlefield reconnaissance helicopter capable of providing ISTAR capability, fire support and limited troop lift, and is also fully capable of operating at sea. In Royal Navy hands it provides essential support to 3 Commando Brigade operations.
At the same time, other Royal Navy helicopters were operating in the region in the form of 845 Squadron who operate the Merlin support helicopter. The Merlin is a replacement for the venerable Sea King Mk4s and originally entered service as a Royal Air Force helicopter. Under defence rationalisation plans, the Royal Air Force transferred 25 Merlins to the Royal Navy, which converted them for operations at sea (for example making changes such as installing folding rotor blades).
This year the Royal Navy sent three Merlin helicopters to Norway, on a complex multi-day 1,500-mile transit. The Merlin now forms the backbone of the Royal Navy troop lift force, capable of transporting platoon-sized forces a considerable distance. In the cold and remote areas of Norway, this can make a major difference to the mobility of troops and their chances of being able to respond rapidly to new threats.
But Exercise Clockwork is not the only part played by the UK in working with Norway. Last year the UK signed an agreement to work with the Norwegians to better coordinate operations of the P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA). The UK is acquiring nine of these long-range aircraft, intended to identify and track submarines and conduct maritime reconnaissance. Norway is intending to purchase five aircraft as well, with both nations fleets entering service at a similar timeframe.
Under these plans Norway will make use of RAF Lossiemouth (the future home of the P8 force) to help more closely train and support operations together. This will help bolster the collective ability of both countries to guard against the increased maritime threat from Russia.
In recent years there has been a considerable resurgence in Russian submarines and surface ships operating in the North Atlantic region. Due to geography, Russian vessels heading into the Atlantic have to sail relatively close to Norway, and NATO prefers, where possible, to monitor and track their locations.
The arrival of the P8 fleet will make a significant difference in capability to track and monitor Russian submarines which could pose a threat to Western shipping, particularly Ballistic Missile Submarines, like the Royal Navy’s Vanguard class which carry the nuclear deterrent. By proactively tracking them, it makes it harder for these vessels to pose a threat to NATO security.
Similarly, both Norway and the UK are acquiring the F35 Lightning for their Air Forces, which will over time raise further opportunities for collaborative joint working, particularly for providing close air support on operations.
Brought together this deployment represents a very significant demonstration of the UK commitment to the defence of Norway and ongoing operations in the Arctic region. It also ensures the right set of skills and experience are on hand in the (hopefully) unlikely event that Norway was to be attacked, the UK could respond appropriately.
Not only do the skills learned here matter for helping British troops operate in the Arctic, but they are transferrable, ensuring that no matter where in the world the UK deploys, there is a strong pool of cold weather experience.
This was seen most tangibly in the Falklands War in 1982, when UK troops, drawn from 3 Commando Brigade, had significant experience of operations in cold weather, aiding their ability to successfully operate in, at times, very difficult conditions.
After some years of relative neglect then, the UK has chosen to heavily refocus its efforts on defending the Arctic and ensuring the threat posed from Russia and others is properly countered in this region. This was encapsulated in the announcement last year that the UK MOD was developing a proper Arctic Strategy for the first time.
This is a significant move as it will bring together all of the considerable work done in Norway, and also look at wider issues like deploying submarines into the Arctic ice pack. It has committed the UK to also look at wider issues like air defence in Iceland (a NATO member state which for historical reasons possesses no armed forces), and also to deploying the Royal Marines annually to Norway.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Exercise Clockwork and comes on the back of a much longer security partnership with Norway (for example the UK defence of Norway against German invasion in 1940). It is clear that with the increase in forces participating, the strong political support for further exercises and the ever-present threat from Russia, Exercise Clockwork is likely to continue for many years to come.
This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.